SCENE SETTER: Poet Laureate who is not afraid of difficult subjects

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Victoria Butler’s latest collection, Hollow Tongue, pays tribute to women who have experienced violence

Fueled by a cause close to them, artists can create a call to action in their own way. It can be soothing, stimulating, entertaining. It can take many forms and is only limited by the imagination. It’s a real gift when an artist can share their voice, their gifts and inspire positive change in their community.

As part of a recent project to benefit the Barrie Women and Children’s Shelter, Barrie Poet Laureate Victoria Butler published hollow tongue, a new collection of literary works that makes room for stories close to us, whether we know it or not. Each page of hollow tongue honors the women in our community who have been abused and even murdered.

Now, a few weeks after its release, I had the opportunity to ask Victoria Butler a few questions about hollow tongueher role as Poet Laureate and the advice she has for the next person to bear the title.

RV: As Barrie’s Poet Laureate for the past four years and the first woman to hold the title, what does this position mean to you? And how has that changed you as an artist?

VB: It was a huge honor to be nominated and then elected when I was only 22 years old. I was just a kid. It’s weird to think about how much has changed in the last four years until today.

I owe a lot to my title of winner. I had so many opportunities to travel and read my poetry all over Ontario, which was literally a dream come true. The role itself was key for me realizing that I could pursue a career in writing. Writing was something I loved all my life, but I thought I could only do it as a hobby.

In 2019, I was one of the guest speakers at Poetry at the Manor in Windsor when someone asked me something about making sure I was the best poet I could be. For some reason, I blurted out, “Oh, I’m going back to school,” in front of a room full of over a hundred people. In my head, I was like, “Uh, there’s no way. I dropped out for a reason,” but lo and behold, I re-enrolled at the University of Toronto in 2020 and am one year away from completing my undergrad in Creative Writing.

It is because the Barrie community has supported me all these years, believed in me and encouraged me, that I have been able to succeed. I owe so much to the Laureate program and I wouldn’t be where I am today, or who I am today, without the city taking a chance on this wide-eyed 22-year-old in 2018.

RV: It was recently announced that Tyneisha Ternent (aka Ty the Poetess) is running to be Barrie’s next Poet Laureate, thanking you for her nomination. Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for her?

VB: I’ve been watching Ty for a while in the community and I’ve known since I met her that she would make an amazing Poet Laureate. Ty excels in community engagement and bringing poetry to people. Over the past two years, she has given countless readings, workshops, live performances, and received grants to organize poetry concerts in Barrie. She has incredible ideas on how to elevate the literary scene in Barrie and I can’t wait to see her bring them to life.

The advice I have for her is not to be afraid. The work of the poet laureate is to speak about the issues of the city through poetry. There were several times throughout my tenure where I felt silenced, where people worried that I was saying something that might be controversial. Poets Laureate are meant to be controversial. They are meant to offer insight into issues and touch on topics that might make people uncomfortable in order to inspire discussion or provoke new critical insights. If Ty becomes our next PL, I encourage her to never shy away from controversy and never feel like she needs to censor herself to put others at ease. She has an incredible gift that can change lives and influence policy, and I don’t want to see her fall victim to those who stand in her way like I did.

RV: Your latest collection, titled hollow tongue, honors victims of violence, with all proceeds going to the Women and Children’s Shelter of Barrie. What inspired this project and what was your process for creating the works we see in the published copy?

VB: I had the idea of hollow tongue in 2020, when Katherine Janeiro’s (alleged) murderer was caught and arrested. I had never heard of Katherine or her story, and I began to wonder why. I started digging through the Barrie Police Cold Case section on their website and found many more women whose stories have been lost over the years and news cycles.

To write each poem, I researched as much as possible about each woman. I’ve spent many hours watching Simcoe County Case Files videos on YouTube and looking through old newspaper clipping scans. I tried to contact a few family members and friends, but they were hard to reach. I wanted to write about their life, more than about their death. Their tragedies had been widely covered by the media, and I wanted them to be remembered for who they were during their lifetime rather than the sensational headlines they had become.

I am also grateful to Mary Fletcher Harris, who works with the Barrie Historical Archives and helped me find information on a few different women. His work on Elizabeth Meyer was essential in helping me write this poem, and it was his personal anecdotes about Michelle Basson that also allowed me to write his poem.

The other pieces that are not named are poems about still-living women who have suffered abuse. These poems, I wrote based on the experiences these women so courageously shared with me and enabled me to write.

VR: hollow tongue was released on October 14. What has been the response so far and what do you hope people take away after reading it?

VB: So far the response has been excellent. At launch, we raised just over $1,000 between the auction and the sale of copies of the collection. There are still a ton of copies left, so lots of potential for more funds for the shelter as well. My grandmother personally purchased six copies and distributed them in her church, so this is my best barometer of success.

I want people to remember the women I’ve written about. I want them to read these stories and understand that violence against women is, sadly, woven into the fabric of our world. There are very few women in my life who haven’t experienced it, and there aren’t any who haven’t felt the ever-present threat. The more we talk about it, the less women feel compelled to hide these experiences for the comfort of others.

RV: If you had to choose a poem from the collection that sums up the essence of hollow tonguewhat poem is it and why?

VB: The opening poem, Untitled, would be the definitive poem. I put it in first as a way to set the scene, to embody the fear I mentioned earlier that women live with and the subtle ways we’ve been conditioned to deal with it. It also includes the title of the collection in the line, “It’s a hollow tongue/carved in stone.” The idea is that women have a common language when we discuss things like this. We don’t need to be too explicit so other women know exactly what we’re talking about.

RV: One line that struck me, among so many others, comes from Staff Report HRS002-20 which ends with “I’m not surprised by your actions, just relieved at the consequences.” Could you expand on the piece and what it means to you?

VB: The expectation of violence is inherent when you travel the world as a woman. It’s not shocking when this fear materializes because it’s something you’ve been told about since childhood. What is surprising, however, is when these acts of violence have consequences, as they so rarely do.

The poem follows the idea of, what if I was just a human, not a woman? (Because those two things are probably not the same thing in a society where women are oppressed.) How would my abuse be viewed if I wasn’t viewed as inferior? The poem plays on the idea of ​​women’s bodies as objects, but in this situation the object is literal. It’s a beautiful setting at an event and when the bully touches it, people get angry and the man has to leave the event, almost like an unruly child has broken something precious. There is nothing shocking in the violent behavior of this person. It’s expected, but it’s a relief to know they’re being reprimanded for it. The consequences exist: a relaxing thought that most women don’t have, and that’s why we choose to report abuse or assault very rarely.

RV: Are there local artists who inspire you and who are they?

VB: Every poem in hollow tongue is associated with works of art, and I can easily say that all the artists I have approached to ask to create something for these poems are artists that inspire me, but here are some more.

Forgather Floral Co. creates breathtaking floral arrangements and installations. I work with them on a part-time basis and it really helps ease my anxiety when I’m surrounded by their wonderful work.

Caitlin Helinski is one of my favorite poets right now. You can read his work on Instagram @therememberingroom. It captures the moments of everyday life in such stunning detail that you’ll never be able to forget them, no matter how hard you try.

Leandra Almeida and Angela Aujla. I joked with them both at the launch of hollow tongue that I could never do anything related to the arts without them. I admire them both so much and it’s an honor to be able to work with them both.

Katie Green and Mar Lewis. They both run Spare Room in downtown Barrie and create endless opportunities for Barrie artists. They are both established artists in their own right, but the work they do has helped Barrie’s artistic community to thrive.

Another amazing community builder is Angela Francis of AFFA Studio. She is also an amazing painter and I hope to see a large scale mural done by her in the future.

Monica Loney, Petra Victoria, Tiff Syzmanski and Ryley James just performed their Hues show at the aforementioned Spare Room, which was a wonderful collection of their various artistic styles. They are all so talented and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Rebekah Hawker is one of my favorite singer-songwriters and I couldn’t be happier to have her back in Simcoe County for a little while.

There are probably countless more that I forget, but I could go on and on. Barrie is simply overwhelmed with incredible talent and I’m honored to be part of the community.

RV: If someone wanted a soundtrack to be in the background while playing hollow tonguewhat would be on the playlist?

GB: candle in the wind by Elton John, followed by a lot of Fiona Apple, or the role of Mitski Drunk walk home or Phoebe Bridgers I know the endwhere they scream.

To purchase a copy of hollow tonguevisit Victoria Butler’s website here.

To donate to the Women and Children’s Shelter of Barrie, click here.


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